More than 2 billion people around the world use WhatsApp. For many of them, the app is not only the go-to choice for staying in touch with family and friends but, increasingly, it’s also a place to connect with their favorite brands, ask customer service questions and shop.
To meet these customers where they are, companies are experimenting with a variety of strategies on the messaging platform. They’re creating community groups, offering one-on-one consultations with sales associates, deploying chatbots for order inquiries and sending promotional blasts to subscriber lists.
When Sydney-based Jacqui Kingswell and Natasha Oakley teamed up to launch the online fitness platform The Pilates Class in 2020, they knew they wanted a space for their members to come together and foster relationships, even when they were on different sides of the world. They considered other digital platforms but settled on WhatsApp as the easiest and most accessible app — and one that most of the community was already using.
At first, the channel was primarily a fast and free way for the dispersed team to message and share files with their colleagues from their smartphones, but as the startup’s subscriber base grew, it created local groups in its biggest cities for members to engage with one another.
“We’ve always wanted WhatsApp to be an international communication hub for TPC, but it has really evolved into a health and wellness hub for both our members and community leaders,” said Kingswell.
Today, TPC has 15 WhatsApp groups covering areas from Melbourne to Orange County, with membership numbers ranging from 30 to 110. The groups are supervised by community leaders who communicate with the brand (also via WhatsApp) to share feedback, plan content around new launches, and act as a mouthpiece so members feel heard and seen.
As an upstart brand with a tight-knit community, TPC has so far had success using WhatsApp’s consumer-geared features. Still, the platform presents some challenges that may deter other companies: For one, instant messaging requires ongoing moderation, and WhatsApp’s moderation tools are more limited than those available on other platforms. There is also no discoverability feature for groups, so members have to be invited individually by phone number.
Throughout this past year, though, the Meta-owned company has been rolling out a range of features that make the app more accessible for organizations. With WhatsApp Communities, administrators can manage a collection of sub-groups under a single umbrella, each group can have up to 1,024 members, and admins can delete unwanted messages. Users also have more privacy tools, including the option to hide their phone numbers from other group members.
Officially, these updates are geared toward organizations such as school communities and workplaces. But with the growing number of fashion and beauty companies seeking out instant messaging platforms such as Discord and Geneva, there are sure to be use cases for brands, as well.
For now, many brands and retailers are still getting comfortable with WhatsApp’s Business tools, said Jason Valdina, senior director of go-to-market strategy for digital engagement channels at Verint. The customer engagement and analytics company has worked with Marks & Spencer, Hudson Bay Company, Thrive Causemetics, Gymshark and PrettyLittleThing, among others in the U.S., the U.K., Canada and beyond, on pilot programs and ongoing customer service and marketing efforts on WhatsApp.
For some companies, the platform provides another channel for customers to get in touch about common post-purchase questions, such as order status and returns. For others, it’s an alternative to SMS for proactive push notifications and promotions.
In the latter scenario, WhatsApp has several advantages, beginning with cost: Sending a campaign to 2 million customers via SMS may cost a brand close to $350,000, said Valdina, compared with around $80,000 via WhatsApp. The platform’s end-to-end encryption is another selling point, as is the range of media that companies can send in each chat, from photos and videos to PDF files and voice notes.
“With WhatsApp, they can have a richer experience,” said Valdina. “It’s more personal. It’s the thing that we use with our friends and family, so why not use it with the brands we love?”
The one-on-one messaging can be either live or asynchronous and can be facilitated by a bot or by a live agent, depending on the company’s customer service infrastructure and the urgency of the inquiry.
Gymshark, a UK-based athleticwear brand that has built a hyper-engaged community on social media, noticed that many customers were messaging the company directly to ask questions like, “Hey, is this top going to come out in another color?” or “Are you planning on restocking this style of legging?” As such, it realized it needed to tweak its messaging protocols, recalled Valdina.
Gymshark trained some agents to guide customers on both sides of the pond through pre-sales conversations — much like they may expect from an in-store associate — that could take place asynchronously. Doing so gave customers more flexibility than if they were tethered to a live agent chat window on the site.
Meta has held off on commercializing WhatsApp until fairly recently. In 2018, it launched the WhatsApp Business API, allowing companies to communicate with customers for a per-message fee. These range from fractions of a cent to 10 cents, depending on the region and message type. Then, last year, it opened up the service significantly with a cloud-based version of the API designed for faster integration and accessibility to businesses of all sizes.
Still, for companies, getting verified on WhatsApp Business or launching an individual campaign can be fairly onerous processes, said Valdina. (Verint generally handles both for its customers.) That may help explain why many American brands and retailers still aren’t on the platform.
In a survey of more than 200 U.S. retailers last year, Verint found that only 39% were using any kind of private messaging to engage with customers.
In other parts of the world, such as India, Southeast Asia and Latin America, such limited use of the tool would be practically unthinkable today.
WhatsApp is installed on 99% of smartphones in Brazil, and more than three-quarters of users report messaging with businesses through the app, according to research from Opinion Box and Mobile Time commissioned by the communications company Infobip.
“It’s a must-have if you want to do business down there,” said Paula Haza, a Brazilian-born, New York City-based global business development consultant.
Shoppers expect to be able to contact brands and retailers through the same app they use to send memes to friends and conduct business with colleagues. For brands like Farm Rio, which was founded in Rio de Janeiro and now operates globally, this means empowering Brazilian sales associates to maintain direct relationships with clients on WhatsApp; sending news about new drops, styles back in stock and promotions; and even trying on pieces and sending photos and videos to demonstrate fit.
If U.S. users can be convinced to adopt the app for a broader spectrum of communication, Brazil may be a harbinger of what’s to come. In November, WhatsApp launched a discoverability feature for users to browse and search for brands and small businesses within the app. And this year, it is testing secure checkouts, following a recent rollout with a grocery retailer in India.
Voice messaging, similar to Apple’s voice notes, is also ubiquitous in some regions, including Latin America. Haza previously oversaw Gap. Inc.’s franchise business in Latin America, and when her business partners needed to get a hold of her, they were far more likely to send a voice message than send an email or schedule a phone call.
It took some adjustment, she admitted, but, much like the platform itself, the advantages quickly became clear.
“It’s fast. It’s free. It’s a simple way of communicating,” she said.